It is a scene is almost every classic Christmas movie. People outside going door to door, freezing, singing songs of good cheer to their friends and neighbors. In this age of synced iSomethings and radio stations with twenty four hour holiday music, we take for granted that holiday music (or any music at all, really) is so readily available. At the time caroling started, in the later part of the Middle Ages, people did not have all of the musical options we have today. People of the community would wander through town and sing to their neighbors, and for their singing would be rewarded with a glass of warmed, mulled wine. That something was called wassail, from the Anglo Saxon phrase “waes hael”, which translates to good health. And what is more traditional and social than wishing your neighbors good health? It is a recipe that ranges from high end ingredients to nonalcoholic ones, and is the precursor to many other holiday punches, like eggnog.
The tradition of the wassail toast is written as early as the 12th century. At a noble banquet, a woman came out carrying a goblet full of wine and offered it to the guest of honor and said “waes hael”. According the record, the proper response to waes hael is “drink hael”. Then the person who offers the goblet drinks, then the person honored drinks. This proved much more effective in protecting royalty and nobles from poison than floating toast in wine and hoping for the best. Wassail was only enjoyed by the rich initially because it was expensive to create. Its traditional base is red wine, with rare spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg added for more flavor.
Like any good game of historical telephone, as time went on the details became a little jumbled. It went from a personal salutation at feasts to a passing of the cup to the entire party. Next time you are at a big to do, think about sharing big cup of wine with everyone in the room. As it trickled down, the wish for good health was no longer confined to humans. Farmers would have a wassail cup for their livestock to encourage them to grow and be healthy. People would toast the good health of the apple trees to make sure the crops came in well, or soak bread with wassail to ward off evil spirits. The English added said apples to the drink as, opening the door to other fruit. Towards the 17th and 18th centuries, people would go from door to door singing, and the hosts would kindly offer them a glass of wassail for their talents. That, as they say, is where our problems began.
Once people realized that there was something to be gained from the tradition, it started to go downhill. The wine was replaced by brown ale (since that is what they could afford), and the spices and fruit were replaced by crab apples, which happened to pop in the warm, frothy beer. This concoction became known as Lamb’s Wool, since the froth on top of the beer looked like wool. This is what became taken from house to house, with almost a demand for payment for bringing by this poorer wassail. This was also coupled by a general decent of the holiday. The Puritans tried to banish holiday celebrations in early America because of how wild they had become, often including break ins, cross dressing, and other debauchery. Charles Dickens and other authors of the time tried to keep the older images alive through their books. There was a spike in wassailing in the 1820’s, but the reality was that the light festivities and merry making had become so sinful it lead to an English bishop to comment that “(m)en dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.” By the beginning of the 20th century most of the traditions of the wassail had been abandoned or handed off to children, who got small gifts instead of a sip of warmed alcohol. It is still carried on in very rural parts of England and the United States.
There is no real recipe for the punch, but there are some commonalities to the ones that are out there. A red wine or a brown beer is usually used, sometimes both in the same recipe. There is also a variety of spices added, typically Christmas spices like cloves, nutmeg, ginger, and cinnamon. Apples have also become a part of the recipe, with other fruit like oranges and lemons. Every now and then, you will see eggs as an ingredient. Do not fall for this. At some point eggs were added to try and thicken up the drink, and they have migrated into a few of the recipes you will find. It is not advised to add them. Most recipes I have seen and tried are just as good without the eggs. There are even recipes out there for nonalcoholic versions,
A Traditional Shropshire Wassail Recipe (via history.uk.com)
10 very small apples
1 large orange stuck with whole cloves
10 teaspoons brown sugar
2 bottles dry sherry or dry Madeira
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon ground ginger
3 allspice berries
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
2 cups castor (superfine) sugar
12 to 20 pints of cider according to the number of guests
1 cup (or as much as you like) brandy
Core the apples and fill each with a teaspoon of brown sugar. Place in a baking pan and cover the bottom with 1/8-inch of water.
Insert cloves into the orange about 1/2″ apart.
Bake the orange with the apples in a 350° oven.
After about 30 minutes, remove the orange and puncture it in several places with a fork or an ice pick.
Combine the sherry or Madeira, cider, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, allspice berries, cinnamon, sugar, apple and orange juice and water in a large, heavy saucepan and heat slowly without letting the mixture come to a boil.
Leave on very low heat.
Strain the wine mixture and add the brandy.
Pour into a metal punch bowl, float the apples and orange on top and ladle hot into punch cups.
Here is a beer based recipe, thanks to Imbibe:
1 qt. brown ale
8 oz. dry sherry
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
finely grated peel of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp. each ground nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Peel and core two apples and cut in thick slices. Place in layers in a baking dish and sprinkle with the brown sugar. Drizzle with 2 oz. of brown ale. Bake until the apples are very tender, about 45 minutes. Chop the apples and their cooking juices in a food processor until smooth. Place in a saucepan over medium-low heat and add the remaining ale, sherry, lemon peel and spices. Simmer gently for a few minutes. Peel and core the remaining apple and slice. Add the slices to the bowl and serve while still warm.
This is a time of year that breeds good cheer and plenty of social gatherings. If you are looking for something new to add to the holiday traditions, try one of the above wassail recipes, or look around the web for one of your own. It is a very tasty, warming drink, perfect for this chilly time of year. Waes hail!